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National Parks - A Brief History

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National Parks - A Brief History

Yellowstone National Park - - courtesy of the National Park Service

One of the first people generally credited with conceptualizing a "national park" was George Catlin (1796-1872), a self-taught artist who traveled extensively among the native peoples of North America, while sketching and painting portraits, landscapes, and scenes from daily Indian life. On a trip to the Dakotas in 1832, he worried about the impact of America's westward expansion on Indian civilization, wildlife, and wilderness. They might be preserved, he wrote, "by some great protecting policy of government . . . in a magnificent park . . . . A nation's park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature's beauty!"

The idea had gained some acceptance years later, when in 1864 Congress donated Yosemite Valley to California for preservation as a state park. The establishment of Yellowstone National Park by act of Congress on March 1, 1872, for the first time signified that public lands were to be set aside and administered by the federal government "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." In 1891, President Harrison established Yellowstone Timberland Reserve as the nation's first forest reserve, and in 1903 President Roosevelt established Pelican Island in Florida as the first [link url =http://www.fws.gov]national wildlife refuge[/link]. There was still no real system of national parks in the United States until August 25, 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act creating the National Park Service (NPS). Established under the umbrella of the Department of the Interior, the NPS was responsible for protecting the 40 national parks and monuments then in existence.

In the years that followed, additional national parks and monuments (mostly in the western states) were administered by the NPS, while other monuments and natural and historical areas were administered as separate units by the War Department and the Forest Service of the Department of Agriculture. No single agency provided unified management of the varied federal parklands. An Executive Order in 1933 transferred 63 national monuments and military sites from the Forest Service and the War Department to the National Park Service. This action was a major step in the development of today's truly national system of parks-a system that includes areas of historical, cultural, scientific, and scenic importance.

In 1970, Congress declared in the General Authorities Act that all units of the system have equal legal standing in a national system. Areas of the National Park System, the act states,
"though distinct in character, are united through their inter-related purposes and resources into one national park system as cumulative expressions of a single national heritage; that, individually and collectively, these areas derive increased national dignity and recognition of their superb environmental quality through their inclusion jointly with each other in one national park system preserved and managed for the benefit and inspiration of all people of the United States..."

Additions to the National Park System are now generally made through acts of Congress, and national parks can be created only through such acts. But the President has authority, under the Antiquities Act of 1906, to proclaim national monuments on lands already under federal jurisdiction. The Secretary of the Interior is usually asked by Congress for recommendations on proposed additions to the System. The Secretary is counseled by the National Park System Advisory Board, composed of private citizens, which advises on possible additions to the System and policies for its management.

Though we use the term "national park" in a general sense when referring to the individual units within the National Park System, the classification system used by NPS actually encompasses 19 separate designations. Some are descriptive listings, such as lakeshores, seashores, and battlefields, but others also include titles that can't be neatly categorized because of the diversity of resources within them. The National Park System today comprises more than 380 areas covering more than 83 million acres in 49 States, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, Saipan, and the Virgin Islands. These areas are of such national significance as to justify special recognition and protection in accordance with various acts of Congress.

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